The Importance of Systems
Nov 16, 2017
James Stuber
5 minute read

When’s the last time you thought about running water?
When’s the last time you worried about access to food?

It’s probably been a while.

Seeking necessities like food and water used to take a huge part of the average human’s day. Now, these are easy to access.

Why is this possible? Because other people set up systems. Huge planning and infrastructure operations deliver you clean water, and fresh food, 247. Instead of spending 6 hours a day looking for necessities, you’re free to spend that time doing other activities.

Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them. — Alfred North Whitehead

So what? Smart people come along and make technology advances and everyone’s lives get easier. I don’t envision myself setting off the next big civilization-wide improvement. Maybe you can.

Improving all of civilization is hard.

What if we made it easier? Narrow the scope. ‘Civilization’ –> ‘Me’.

Your own life advances by extending the number of important operations which you can perform without thinking about them.

That’s a little more approachable.

Systems make performing important operations easier. We can setup systems and procedures to improve our own lives.


What to systematize

What are some operations which we can systematize?

  • Paying bills
  • Sleep and wake times
  • Task Choice
  • Studying procedures
  • Work procedures
  • Organizing Information and research
  • Food choices
  • Exercise programs
  • Email handling
  • Clothing choices
  • Cleaning the house

I’m sure you can think of more.

Systematize the stuff that’s important, but boring to you. If you’re a foodie, don’t drink Soylent for all of your meals. If you’re a fashionista, don’t emulate Steve Jobs and wear the same thing everyday.

By automating the important, but boring parts of your life, we free up time to do the work that’s truly important to us.

10 Tools to Help You Implement Systems

You don’t have to make the next all-encompassing personal productivity system. Take something that’s already been built and apply it to your own life.

Here are some frameworks and tools you can work from:

Pick one of these and implement it. Don’t look for the holy grail of systems, pick something simple that works. Your system doesn’t need to be perfect, or cover every edge case. Improve on it later if you need to.

When your new system becomes effortless, look for another area to systematize.


This all seems like too much work…

Reading about and implementing systems seems so tedious. Can’t I just do it like I’ve always done?

No.

If you don’t have a system in place, you already have a system. It’s either poorly implemented or serving someone else’s needs.

“I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s” — William Blake

Implement your own system, and you will get more done in a way that serves you.

An Example

Let’s pretend you have no email system. Your inbox looks like this:

email inbox with too may unread emails

You get dozens of newsletters everyday, and let them sit in your inbox. When you need to find an important email, you scroll through your inbox, scanning to find the right subject line, and get frustrated when it’s hard to find. You use email to store your important documents, and when you need it, searching for “Important Tax Document” yields too many results to handle.

Your email inbox is always open, and you leave notifications on. A little popup shows a new email: “URGENT: Report B due”. You have a mild panic attack, drop your work on Report A, and scramble to crank out Report B.

Report B got done on time. Hooray! But now Report A is late. Not only did the context switch cost you time, when you dropped everything to work on Report B, you left loose ends everywhere. Now you have to re-do some of the research again. Ugh.

Now there’s a new email from your boss: “URGENT!”

“email is a task list that’s created for you by someone else.” – Chris Sacca

Living reactively out of your email inbox means you’ll never be able to zoom-out and see the big picture. You’re letting anyone with your email address put things on the top of your to-do list, at any time.

Here’s a good system for dealing with email.


Be Selfish to Help Others

At first glance, focusing on improving your own systems might seem selfish. Why waste time making my life easier when so many others are struggling? Because sometimes you have to be selfish in order to be unselfish.

Systematizing your own life builds your capacity to do more. When your capacity is higher, you have a stronger base to work from, can take on more ambitious projects, and can contribute back to society. Ultimately, you’re getting more done for others by focusing on yourself.

Make the mundane automatic so you can concentrate on what’s really important.

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Further Reading

  • Gateless - Systems improve your ‘Capacity’ and make you more valuable
  • Work Clean - Mise-en-place for your work
  • Getting Things Done - The OG task planning system
  • Zen To Done - An incremental approach for those who find GTD too complicated
  • The Agile Way - For those who find GTD outdated or too reactive

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